White Supremacy in White American Christianity, Explained

A church cornerstone in Charleston, West Virginia. ME South churches are located through the central and southern Appalachian region. Photo: Laura Harbert Allen/100 Days in Appalachia
A church cornerstone in Charleston, West Virginia. ME South churches are located through the central and southern Appalachian region. Photo: Laura Harbert Allen/100 Days in Appalachia

The phrase “White Christian Nationalism” may well be the religious term of 2022. 

Since the House Subcommittee hearings on the January 6 Insurrection this summer, many Americans have seen photos and videos of Christian flags and crosses alongside banners supporting then-President Donald Trump. 

Seeing the overt mingling of Christian symbols with those of the white nationalist movement has sparked intense interest in the role of religion in extremist movements in the United States, and rightfully so. 

But how is white supremacy embedded in American Christianity? And what does this mean for our current moment? On this Democracy Day, we break down the ideas behind this history and how it continues to play out today. 

The Doctrine of Discovery

Robert P. Jones, president and founder of Public Religion Research Institute, believes many Christians, especially white Christians, have a responsibility to understand a concept known as the Doctrine of discovery, based on a papal bull or decree issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. 

The "Inter Caetera," a Papal Bull or edict issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493. The document is considered foundational to the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave rise to the belief that North and South America were divinely ordained promised lands for European christians. Source: The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American Democracy
The “Inter Caetera,” a Papal Bull or edict issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493. The document is considered foundational to the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave rise to the belief that North and South America were divinely ordained promised lands for European christians. Source: The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American Democracy

“The basic idea was that Europeans, who were Christian, had the blessings of the church and the authority of the state to so-called discover any of the lands that were occupied by non-Christian, non-European people,” Jones explained. ”And when they did they had the right to dominate those people and confiscate those lands.” 

Jones describes this belief as something that is “deep in the DNA of the European Christendom that comes to America.” 

Protestant Puritans used scripture to claim the New World as a divinely ordained Promised Land. Inhabiting it fulfilled God’s purpose and justified taking lands from Native Americans. 

Yale professor Phillip Gorski describes the promised land story as part of a three part narrative that informs today’s White Christian Nationalism. Puritan preachers like Cotton Mather – who was a prolific New England clergyman and writer that participated in early Boston witch trials – added an “end times” element to the story based on a literal reading of the last book of the Bible, Revelation. Mather believed the New World would “be the central battlefield in the final struggle between good and evil,” said Gorski, and compared Indians to demons, thus justifying their slaughter.

Using the Bible to justify slavery

Until the early 18th century, killing Indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans was based on religion. Christians killing “heathens” and “heretics,” after all, was a historic fact long before the colonization of the New World. 

But, according to Gorski, as enslaved and Indigenous people started to convert to Christianity, the justification for their treatment became skin color. 

The story of the “mark of Ham” was probably the most important scripture used to justify slavery. 

Ham was the youngest son of Noah, and was punished by his father to be a servant to his brothers and their descendents for seeing his father naked. Over time, Blackness became “the mark of Ham,” and the justification for Black Africans to be enslaved by white Europeans. 

Early on in America’s history, Baptists and Methodists opposed slavery. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote that slavery was based on “false foundations” in 1774. And Methodists required their pastors to preach sermons against it. But as the church began to grow in the South, clergy abandoned antislavery sentiment because many of their new church members were slaveholders. 

In 1845, Baptists and Methodists split into northern and southern groups. The Methodists came back together in 1938, but still segregated Black Methodists by creating the “Central Conference,” which was not dismantled until 1968. 

Baptists remain divided to this day with the Southern Baptist Convention based in the south and the much smaller American Baptist Convention in the northeast.

Institutionalized white supremacy in the church is not only a southern problem. It’s a white Christian problem.

Robert Jones, who grew up southern Baptist and was in church regularly, didn’t learn that the Southern Baptist Church was formed, in his words: “in support of the idea that chattel slavery was compatible with Christianity,” until he was in seminary in his mid 20s. “I always thought of that as a geographic descriptor,” he said. “I didn’t really attach much meaning to it other than where it was on the map.”

It took the pursuit of graduate education for Jones to learn about the reason for the existence of the Southern Baptist Convention.

A 1902 map showing the boundaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, which split from the Methodist Episcopal Church over slavery in 1845. Even after the two branches came back together in 1938, Black Methodists were segregated into their own conference. Source: Public Domain
A 1902 map showing the boundaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, which split from the Methodist Episcopal Church over slavery in 1845. Even after the two branches came back together in 1938, Black Methodists were segregated into their own conference. Source: Public Domain

Jones’ 2020 book “White Too Long” includes a description of what he calls a “racism index,” which he used to assess how Christian identity correlates with white Americans attitudes about race. 

Jones created the index through survey questions about Confederate monuments and flags, law enforcements’ treatment of Black Americans, and whether the effects of slavery are still felt today.  He measured the results across different Christian faiths. 

The index was scored from one to 10, with one indicating least racist attitudes and 10 holding the most racist attitudes. 

White Evangelicals scored 8 out of 10 on that index. “That’s maybe not so surprising given the history [of the South],” Jones said.

But white mainline Protestants, traditionally associated with the midwest and northeast  scored 7 out of 10. So did white Catholics, who Jones noted tend to be located in urban cities like New York and Boston. 

Nones – or religiously unaffiliated respondents – scored 4 out of 10. 

“So, you take your average white person in America, and you add Christian identity, they move up the racism index and not down,” Jones said. 

What this all means for our Democracy

Jones says his results show the lasting power of white supremacy through the centuries in white Christianity in America. He calls white Christian Nationalism a “new term for a very old problem.”

For example, former President Donald Trump regularly deployed the phrase “our glorious destiny” as President, including in his 2019 Conservative Political Action Coalition address, and in his 2017 inaugural address to the nation. This language is rooted in ideas of the discovery doctrine, the idea of manifest destiny and the rhetoric of white supremacy.

It points to the fundamental conflict present in America’s founding, said Jones: whether the nation is a “divinely ordained promised land for white Christians or a multi-religious multiracial democracy.”

Laura Harbert Allen is a Report for America corps member covering religion for 100 Days in Appalachia. Click here to help support her reporting through the Ground Truth Project.

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